I love my home state of Texas. I am proud to have been born and raised in a diverse environment where I was taught to respect my neighbor’s individual beliefs and expect respect in return. It’s no secret that my home state has been taken over by an extreme wing of the Republican Party, and I am not proud of the results. Last night, the Supreme Court issued a short-term reprieve that allows abortion clinics to remain open while they decide whether or not take up the case of the draconian law HB2, intended to shut them down. But this temporary victory feels fragile in a state where so much damage has already been done. A 2011 study that predates the current law shuttering clinics showed that already 7 percent of women who need abortion care in the state have already tried to self-abort. Even without these remaining clinics being threatened with closure, it’s fair to say that my beloved home state is in the throes of an all-out public health crisis. As we work to rectify that devastating situation, we are faced with a new threat—what happens on November 4 could put all of America on the same path as Texas.
With Election Day bearing down on us, pundits and prognosticators are working overtime debating the question of the day: will the Democrats hold the Senate or will anti-choice Republicans get a majority in both chambers? Predictions vary by the day, but there are two things that most people agree on: this election will be a nail-biter, and women voters can make the difference in all of the key races.
One important fact is flying under the political radar: even if Democrats hold the Senate, we could still see the attacks on reproductive rights so prevalent in Texas and other states go national. Already in the Senate, we have a razor-thin margin when it comes to reliably defending access to abortion services in our country, and unlike years past, those votes are entirely on the Democratic side of the aisle. With pro-choice stalwarts like Iowa’s Tom Harkin and Michigan’s Carl Levin retiring, the chance that the clinic closures sweeping the South and more restrictions on abortion could become the norm in our country.
A national Wall Street Journal/NBC poll found that seven in ten Americans support the constitutional rights enshrined in Roe v. Wade. Recently, my organization, NARAL Pro-Choice America, conducted another national poll and found that yet again, seven in ten Americans believe that women should have the legal right to access abortion. But this majority is startlingly underrepresented in Congress, where only four in ten elected officials share Americans’ pro-choice values. The Republicans who control the House have amply demonstrated that restricting a woman’s right to decide when and how she has a family is a top priority. Their counterparts in the Senate share these goals.
Decades ago, trusting women to make our personal decisions about family planning was a shared value that crossed party lines. After all, Republican Governor John Love was the first to sign legislation liberalizing abortion in Colorado several years before Roe v. Wade, followed shortly thereafter by Republican Governor Rockefeller in New York. Recognizing that reproductive freedom is central to individual autonomy and equality, the mainstream in both parties recognized access to abortion as a fundamental human right.
It’s certainly not news that, like Texas, the House has been taken over by an extreme wing of the Republican Party. What might be news to many is their introduction—and even passage—of bills that are the mirror image of attacks on women’s fundamental freedoms that we have seen at the state level. House leaders passed a bill that would ban all private insurance companies in state exchanges from covering abortion care. They voted more than fifty times to change or repeal or weaken Obamacare, which provides for comprehensive family-planning coverage—including prenatal, birth and maternity care for healthy families. They passed a bill that would ban abortion after twenty weeks of pregnancy, despite overwhelming evidence that this small fraction of cases are the most complicated and the most important to leave between a woman, her family and her doctors. And after the disastrous Supreme Court decision in the Hobby Lobby case, they flat-out refused to bring the “Not My Bosses’ Business” bill to the floor for a vote. Apparently for House Republicans, women should have to ask for our boss’ permission to spend our hard-earned insurance dollars on the birth control of our choice.
These bills haven’t become law, but only because the Senate firewall worked exactly as it should—reflecting the will of mainstream Americans by refusing to allow the ideology of a few to be imposed on the many. But if anti-choice Republicans win enough seats on November 4 to take control of the Senate, women will face the possibility of very different treatment under the law. After all, Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell, who would become majority leader of the Republican-run Senate, has already made it clear that passing the twenty-week ban would be one of his top priorities. But even if we only lose a couple of critical pro-choice champion—and there are several in tight races—we could begin to see incremental dismantling of hard-won reproductive rights.
Many people have told me they strain to find credibility in the idea that America could become like Texas—and I get that. We Texans are our own breed in so many ways. (And hopefully a change of leadership there will move Texas in a new direction.) But what about Pennsylvania, where last month a mother was sentenced to eighteen months in prison after she resorted to buying her daughter abortion pills over the Internet because she couldn’t afford to travel overnight to the nearest clinic, a 150-mile round trip? Or Indiana, where Governor Mitch Daniels signed a law that cuts all federal funding for family planning, increasing the out-of-pocket expense for birth control by hundreds of dollars for low-income women? Or Wisconsin, where under Governor Scott Walker women are now forced to undergo mandatory but medically unnecessary ultrasounds before accessing abortion care? Or Ohio, where the law mandates that doctors must read scripts to patients that have nothing to do with the medical concerns of terminating a pregnancy? The list goes on and on and on.
Far too many women and families in our country have already lost any meaningful right to abortion care. Even more have been subjected to punitive and humiliating lectures and procedures—with no medical purpose—mandated by politicians, not doctors. Losing the Senate would do more than restrict abortion access everywhere in our country. It would put into power individuals whose very ideology is grounded in an idea of women as less than equal citizens, who must be controlled through laws that not only deny us our right to the medical care of our choosing, but also the knowledge that allows us to make informed decisions.
That’s why women not only can—but must—make the difference at polls this year, along with our male allies who believe in full equality of all Americans. As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said, “The decision whether or not to bear a child is central to a woman’s life, her well-being, and her dignity.”
When we go to the polls on November 4, we can choose the vision of Ruth Bader Ginsburg for our beloved country—or we can go the way of Texas.